Saturday, February 7, 2009

Charles Dickens with his raven

A special birthday tribute to a writer from across the pond, Charles Dickens (who still has a few years yet before he turns 200). I like to use Dickens as an example of what was happening in American literature because, though he wasn't American, he was the best-selling novelist in the United States for a time. American literature (and especially the American novel) had a slow start, and Americans were looking to mother England and its long-standing tradition of literature. Of course, there's also the whole international copyright issue, which meant that much of Dickens's work was published in the United States without legal permission. Ah well.

Our own Edgar Poe connects with Dickens in a couple of ways and I'm sure I'll mention the others throughout the year. Today, however, I'd like to connect one of Dickens's lesser-known novels with Poe's most famous poem.

Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of 'Eighty, like most of Dickens's works, originally was printed in serialized form, in this case between 1840 and 1841. Poe was working in Philadelphia for Graham's Magazine at the time and reviewed Dickens's work in the February 1842 issue (of which I happen to have a first printing). The long review — nearly 12 columns — applauds Dickens's efforts, with an occasional negative criticism peppered throughout ("Mr Dickens fails peculiarly in pure narration").

The majority of Poe's praise is directed towards Dickens's ability to present dramatis personae — dramatic characters. Such skill "sustain[s] the high fame of Mr. Dickens as a delineator of character... Their traits are founded in acute observation of nature, but are exaggerated to the utmost admissible extent." He does find a flaw or two, and one particular one which he emphasizes: Dickens included as a character a talking raven. He wrote:
The raven, too, intensely amusing as it is, might have been made, more than we now see it, a portion of the conception of the fantastic Barnaby. Its croakings might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.
And thus, the concept of a talking raven that serves as a prophet was first crafted by Poe — and, by the way, those are Poe's italics, not mine.

In this review, we see another connection that Poe will make between Barnaby Rudge and his own poem "The Raven" in just a couple years. Poe questions that "no work of fiction can fully suit, at the same time, the critical and the popular taste". He would challenge this assertion very specifically in "The Raven", as he explains in its companion essay "The Philosophy of Composition" using nearly those exact same words.

Poe didn't deny Dickens's inspiration, either. He mentioned Barnaby Rudge in "The Philosophy of Composition" and many other writers knew it too. James Russell Lowell, for example, famously referred to Poe in A Fable for Critics (1848) as coming "with his Raven, like Barnaby Rudge."

Dickens, by the way, was inspired to include a raven character because he himself owned a pet raven named Grip. After Grip's death, Dickens had him stuffed and mounted in a glass case. The connection between Dickens's raven and Poe's was strong enough that Poe collector Richard Gimbel purchased the stuffed Grip and added it to his collection (now preserved at the Philadelphia Free Library). I had the good fortune of seeing Grip, in his current form, in January and was proud to think that it was from this little guy (actually, he's quite large!) that we eventually had "Once upon a midnight dreary..."

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens.


Janeite Deb said...

This is a great connection...I have never read Barnaby Rudge and did not know that Poe had reviewed this work, raven and all! thank you for sharing! Just adds to the thinking that everything comes back to Dickens, when I know for a fact that everything comes back to Jane Austen! [your blog is looking great by the way!]
Best, Deb

Tanya Hanson said...

Happy birthday, Mr. Dickens, indeed!

This is a great blog I'll be coming back to.

Sherry said...

Thanks for coming by Semicolon and leading me here. I'm quite fond of Mr. Poe's work, so I'll be back.

fellow-ette said...

Great post! Will you be tuning in to all the dark new Dickens adaptations on PBS later this month?

Rob Velella said...

I might have to! Dickens does have some darkness in him, doesn't he?

Gina said...

I didn't know of that connection. Very interesting. And how cool to have that first printing!

lila jane said...

Wow! You filled in a lot of blanks for me concerning in what manner Poe reviewed Dickens' Barnaby Rudge. Poe was so right when he praised Dickens' ability to create amazing characters.
I am impressed by all your achievements and am jealous you got to see Grip!
Please invite your readers to check out my blog, Lisa's History Room, where I blog on Poe, Dickens, and Grip and other historical personages:
All my best,
Lisa Waller Rogers